An artist, Robert Oliver, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital having desperately attacked a painting at the National Gallery in Washington. Refusing to speak he spends his days obsessively painting a mysterious and beautiful woman. The novel follows Marlowe, a psychiatrist, as he struggles to treat Oliver, with nothing more to go on than his observations of the patient and conversations with Oliver’s ex-wife and lover, which hint darkly at the insanity which is consuming the artist. Who is the dark lady he paints? And what is the significance of the ancient letters that Robert keeps so close at all times?
Personally I found The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova slow to start, as the author was overly keen to establish relationships between minor characters that didn’t really enhance the story, possibly because of a fear of being seen to “tell” the story rather than “show” it. I found the split narrative perspectives lacked cohesion which left the story with a fragmented feel, especially given that the author frequently inserts letters to replace elements of the narrative prior to developing a sequence of chapters which are set in the late 1870s. There are those who will probably attempt to claim that this unity is a clever technique meant to reflect Oliver’s inner turmoil. If so, it’s pretentious, as well as fussy and irritating. It prevented any real sense of urgency developing; something which made Kostova’s debut novel The Historian so enjoyable.
Kostova has clearly researched the art scene carefully, and her presentation of both the modern artists and impressionists are convincing, if not truly engaging. Despite the beautiful language use, her characterisation in this novel is generally poor. The voice of the three main narrators was too similar, and as a result I didn’t believe in the characters. Even when Kostova switched to the third person to narrate the events of Paris in 1870s, I was left with a feeling that the slow progress of Beatrice and Olivier’s relationship was lacking passion and conviction.
The most convincing characters in the novel were the minor characters that were observed by the narrator without a voice of their own, save in sparse dialogue. As the focus of the novel’s quest for truth, Robert Oliver grew in complexity and developed sufficiently to appeal to the reader’s curiosity, though for me this was ruined by the novel’s hurried ending, which was over simplified and somewhat trite.
I have to admit, for me this novel is far too reminiscent of Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre (another disappointing second novel). The time switch in the narrative, the descriptions of painting and the lack lustre characterisation all pulled me back to this. I was incredibly disappointed, as The Historian suggests that Kostova is the more accomplished writer when developing a unique and compelling story. However, this novel was a far cry from its excellent predecessor.